‘Slaughtered’ (‘Saigneurs’): Cinema du Reel Review

Raphael Girardot and Vincent Gaullier capture life inside an industrialized abattoir.

Anyone who ever studied Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle knows that a good steak doesn’t always come from the most inviting of places. In Raphael Girardot and Vincent Gaullier’s vigorous new documentary, Slaughtered (Saigneurs), the sanitary conditions have vastly improved since Sinclair’s Chicago of 1904, but the process itself — the systematic killing and dismembering of living creatures — has hardly evolved, subjecting animals to assembly line extermination and humans to a physically draining routine that only the most thick-skinned can endure.

Shot over a six-year period inside a high-tech, highly productive abattoir in western France, the film offers up a different view of the profession compared to Georges Franju’s famously gory short study from 1949, Blood of the Beasts. Eschewing the slaughtering part of the procedure to focus instead on workers who are required to cut-and-slice several carcasses a minute, and the effects such strenuous labor has on their bodies and minds, this is not really the kind of movie that will convert carnivores into born-again vegetarians. Rather, it concentrates on a punishing job none of us know much about — on those people breaking their backs to put meat on our plates.

The Bottom Line

Slaughterhouse live.

Produced by ISKRA – the outfit behind Chris Marker’s 1977 sprawling political doc, Grin Without a Cat — and screening in feature-length form at the Cinema du Reel documentary festival in Paris, Slaughtered (whose grislier French title translates to Bleeders) has already been broadcast in a shorter version on local television. International exposure could include airdates throughout Europe and fest bookings overseas, with possibility for niche theatrical play if some brave distributors step up.

Girardot (operating camera) and Gaullier (handling sound) were granted full access to the S.V.A. slaughterhouse outside of Rennes, capturing with painstaking detail the daily grind (non pun intended) of a state-of-the-art facility where up to 500 or 600 cows can be knackered in a single day.

Shooting in continuous takes that editor Charlotte Tourres (Stop-Over) cuts down to the essential, they reveal, in the way of an ergonomic study, how long-term repetitive actions — shaving fat, removing bowels, decapitating heads, peeling away hides and chopping off horns — can be both manually taxing and morally dehumanizing, leaving workers with chronic body pain and a sense that this is all life has to offer them.

As we get to know a few of the butchers, who are a mix of hardened veterans and struggling new recruits, we learn that the majority of them would rather be doing something else for a living but don’t see many options available, particularly in a region of France where unemployment is a constant, looming threat. “You need a whole lot of courage,” says one African laborer who goes about his duties with a sort of fatalistic stoicism, though admits at one point that his job is impossible to do for too long.

Slaughtered offers up such brief insights into the workers’ psyches while concentrating primarily on the assembly line, where the majority of the action is set. It’s not easy to watch at first while a constant stream of severed heads and limbs roll by — as if Eli Roth had decided to shoot a remake of Chaplin’s Modern Times — though, like the laborers themselves, one eventually gets used to it, even if the somewhat overstretched film could perhaps use five or 10 minutes of, um, additional trimming.

Despite those minor drawbacks, what the directors have captured here is formidable, especially at a time when more and more people make a living in front of their computers and only break a sweat if they’ve decided to purchase a treadmill desk. In contrast, life at the slaughterhouse hasn’t changed much since the epoch of Sinclair, even if the one depicted by Girardot and Gaullier seems to have impeccable standards of hygiene and job safety, rendering the process less painful than before. Regardless, as long as we keep scoffing down burgers and veal chops, animals will keep dying on a mass scale and some of us will have to do the dirty work.

Production companies: ISKRA, Mille et Une Films
Directors: Raphael Girardot, Vincent Gaullier
Producers: Matthieu de Laborde, Gilles Padovani
Director of photography: Raphael Girardot
Editor: Charlotte Tourres
Sales: Iskra

In French
97 minutes